As anyone in a profession dealing with children knows, sometimes hand sanitizer can come in really handy. Now normally, I hate putting the Purell stuff on my hands because it kills off not only the bad bacteria, but the good bacteria too. If we are going to keep our immune systems working, we don't want to kill everything we come in contact with. What most people think of as hand sanitizer is labeled as "antibacterial" which means it actually kills what is on our hands whether it be harmful or beneficial. This use of antibacterial sanitizers has the potential to actually produce antibiotic resistant bacteria. In a sense, the weaker our immune systems get, the more we want to get rid of all the germs by killing them. But every time we do so there is the potential for a germ to live after being exposed to the antibacterial gel and then go on to great a resistant bacteria of some sort. In general, we don't usually need to actually have the germs killed off of our hands though. A lot of people use hand sanitizer just as a precaution or because it has become a habit. I believe it's important than to carefully think about why we are using antibacterial hand sanitizer and whether a more natural option is available.
Hand sanitizer also always comes in plastic. With our society in general so focused on keeping things sterile, the only way to do that is by encapsulating the product in sealed plastic. This causes schools and medical offices to go through tons of plastic bottles on a regular basis, often unable to recycle them. So not only is the regular use of hand sanitizer potentially harming our immune system's long term health, but is also contributing towards the plastic pollution of our planet.
Now, I may not be able to convince my local doctor's office to start making their own hand sanitizer, but I definitely can find an alternative for my personal use. I generally use it since I work with kids so much and don't always have a sink close by. I am also traveling abroad this summer and would like to have something on hand since I won't always have access to clean water. For most people, a good hand washing with soap and warm water is plenty to get rid of most of the dangerous germs we may come into contact with (and is actually still the first defense recommended by the FDA!). If though you want to have some hand sanitizer around just in case like me, it's actually pretty easy to make at home!
Making your own hand sanitizer means that you won't be making an antibacterial one as mentioned above that kills off all bacteria. And being totally honest and up front here, there is mostly anecdotal evidence to support the use of "natural" ingredients to truly fight bacteria that might be on your hands. I recommend you do a little research about what ingredients will fight off bacteria the best (and feel free to report back!). I ended up coming up with the following information about more naturally occurring plant products that have antibacterial properties:
Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe Vera is one of those miracle plants that works to heal almost anything in my opinion. In common practice, it's most known as a treatment for small cuts and sunburns. I also use it on my cold sores as a topical treatment. Many studies have also been done on how aloe vera gel fights off bacteria it comes in contact with. Studies have shown that it effectively reduces oral pathogens, E. coli and many other types of bacteria! When making a hand sanitizer then, aloe vera gel is a great base ingredient to work up from! Unless you have access to an aloe vera plant, it usually has to be purchased in a glass or plastic bottle. I currently have one in my house that I've slowly been going through the last four years! If you do happen to have a plan, you can harvest the gel straight from the leaves. Just remember that it goes bad pretty quickly since it doesn't have a preservative and will need to be remade much sooner.
Rubbing Alcochol or Witch Hazel
In addition to just aloe vera gel, rubbing alcohol or witch hazel are usually added to hand sanitizer recipes so that it dries quicker when applied. Rubbing alcohol has quite the research to back it up and will definitely do the trick as a bacterial disinfectant. Many recipes online call for it in homemade hand sanitizer. I, however, find rubbing alcohol to be extremely drying. It also smells really strong and as someone who is sensitive to fragrances, it's just too potent to use regularly. Oh, and it's also impossible to find in bulk! Instead, witch hazel is an alternative to rubbing alcohol that smells less and can be found in bulk. There is preliminary anecdotal evidence that witch hazel has disinfectant properties and small scale studies have been conducted looking at its antibacterial properties against cold sores and other topical lesions (read more here). It is not technically a disinfectant by FDA regulations, but I believe it does a good enough job for me!
Vegetable Glycerin or Vitamin E Oil
Witch Hazel is still naturally drying which means if you are putting it on your hands regularly, you need something to keep them moisturized as well. Most recipes online called for Vitamin E oil, but I didn't have any of that on hand. Instead I used Vegetable Glycerin and it worked well. I found that the gel ended up being a little greasy and took a minute more to dry on my hands than I would have liked. Next time I am going to try vitamin E oil and see if it does the same. You might also want to try reducing the quantity of oil as well! Just don't let your hands start drying out and cracking!
Adding essential oils to your homemade hand sanitizer will serve as both aromatherapy and bacterial protection. Although studies comparing all types of essential oils against bacteria are limited, many studies have been done comparing some of the most popular ones such as tea tree, eucalyptus, orange, lemon, oregano, thyme. Each study compared the essential oils to different types of bacteria but almost all found positive results indicating antibacterial properties associated with each one. A quick google search will give you lists such as this one, with attached references to the published studies themselves. I chose to use orange, tea tree, and cinnamon for this one. Feel free to switch up the types if you like a different smell or are impressed by a study conducted with a different essential oil! Additionally, you can adjust the quantity of drops as preferred (keeping it below 20 to have a safe strength for daily application).
Now, are you ready to make your own hand sanitizer? Follow the recipe below to get started!
Zero Waste Hand Sanitizer (DIY)
1. Put the aloe vera gel, witch hazel, and vegetable glycerin in the bowl. Mix them together thoroughly.
2. Pour the ingredients into your container of choice using the funnel.
3. Add the essential oils straight into the container and then shake to mix.
*The recipe makes only about a 1/4 cup in total or around 4 fluid ounces.
Let me know if you try it out and how it works for you! I'll be taking my little bottle with me to Ecuador, Argentina, and Mexico this summer and I'll be reporting back on how it feels to use it every day!
Photos taken by Mason Kale Herbert Suda - visit her instagram @masonkale to see more beautiful photos!